Richard "Fess" Thomas
Richard H. Thomas was a popular educator whose career in Princess Anne spanned five decades. His legion of admirers affectionately called him “Fess" -- short for professor, and a term of endearment students of that era used sparingly as a sign of respect.
“If anyone ever epitomized the term ‘gentleman,’ it would be he,” said William “Bill” Jones, Class of 1978.
“He was one of the greatest men I have ever met in my life,” recalled Col. Ralph Hodge, USAF (retired), Class of 1958.
Thomas was very formal; he always wore a tie and a white shirt, and addressed his students as “Mr.” or “Miss”.
During sporting events, however, Thomas’ formality was replaced by loud cheering. “President (John T.) Williams and Mr. Thomas were always out-yelling one another!” said Jones, laughing.
During the 38 years Thomas taught (1933-71), he saw the institution's name evolve from Princess Anne College to Maryland State College and finally to the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. He was an industrial arts instructor and served near the end of his career as head of the department of Industrial and Mechanic Arts (1966-1971).
Thomas earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from Cheyney State University and his Master of Arts from Pennsylvania State University. He continued his studies at Rutgers University and at several other technical schools. He was a member of the Phi Alpha Chapter of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, where he was past basilicus, and a member of several industrial arts and other professional organizations.
In addition to teaching, Thomas was involved with athletics, serving for a time as athletics director, and as a member of the athletic and homecoming committees.
“He was a real ‘booster’ for athletics,” Jones said. Well-known and highly respected as a recruiter, he is credited with bringing to campus student-athletes Sylvester Polk, Cal Martin, Albert Jones, Joe Raikes, Rob Merritt, Ted Adams, Ernest Ramsay, Billy Johnson and John McDaniels among others.
“In 1978, I visited with Mr. and Mrs. Thomas at their home," Hodge said. “That day, Mr. Thomas happily reminded me about my long, game-winning home run against North Carolina A&T on May 7, 1955!”
Each fall, Thomas reveled in the ritual of game preparations. He strategized with the coaches (“Rooster” Coffee, “Skip” McCain, Earl Banks, and “Nate” Taylor) and encouraged the football players.
As homecoming approached, everybody knew where to find him: ensconced in the “maelstrom” of float decorating, bonfires, prep rallies and coronations. For Thomas, homecoming was the quintessential moment and the “Hawks” the quintessential team!
Jones remembers how Thomas and professor Theodore “Box” Briggs skillfully repaired broken “Louisville Slugger” bats for the enjoyment of students who attended the old Somerset Jr. /Sr. High School – now Kiah Hall on the UMES campus. “There was nothing better for us than playing with those bats!” Jones said.
In “Polishing the Diamond,” a history of the University of Maryland Eastern Shore by William P. Hytche, Thomas is pictured gleefully smiling with faculty colleagues while performing a Rockettes’-style kick line during a campus talent show. He was so well-regarded the university's arts and technologies center is named in honor of Thomas and his colleague, Briggs.
Married to Claudia, who was often called an “honorary cheerleader” and a staunch Hawk supporter, they had three children, Calvin, Diane, and Grace. Grace remembers UMES fondly. “My dad loved working at UMES, and the campus was my playing field,” she said.
Thomas’ dedication to UMES lives on through a scholarship endowment fund that he and Claudia established in 1992. The Richard H. Thomas Scholarship Fund is earmarked to help students in the technology department.
He died in 1995 at the age of 81 in Princess Anne, MD.
-- Veronique Diriker, Ph.D.